They gathered in their dozens inside an Alice Springs pub. Knowing the odds were against them, they belted out a rallying cry made famous from a song by Australian band The Whitlams: “Blow up the pokies and drag them away.”
The Sydney-based hospitality giant, Iris Capital, had just spent $50m buying some of the town’s biggest pubs and hotels. It already owned the casino and its more than 300 poker machines, but wasted no time applying for 60 more at its four new venues.
Like in many communities across the country, the fight against pokies fell to volunteers.
From regional Victoria to the Byron Bay hinterland, these groups oppose multimillion dollar investments in their spare time. Some have influenced dozens of publicans, who are now ripping machines from the walls.
It was a group of social workers, activists, young families and professionals who led the fight in Alice Springs from July last year, and sang The Whitlams song the following month.
Their community already had three times the national average of poker machines per adult. Officially, the town – with a population of 25,000 – lost almost $14m to pokies last year – an amount that doesn’t include losses lost at its casino, which is considered commercial in confidence.
“It all started on WhatsApp,” says Emma Buckley Lennox, a lawyer who volunteers for the No Pokies in Mparntwe group. Mparntwe is the Arrente name for Alice Springs.
“We believed that any additional poker machine – so close to communities that are vulnerable – was ultimately extremely harmful. As locals, we all knew this town had its share of social problems.”
Within days of forming, the group had more than 700 people backing submissions to the gaming minister. They set up market stalls, walked the streets, hosted speaking events and screenings of the anti-pokies documentary KaChing!, and worked with choirs and local media to generate awareness.
A month after the choir protest, the Northern Territory government announced a nine-month moratorium on all new poker machine applications and would later thank the group for its advocacy.
Buckley Lennox says the decision was “absolutely” due to the group’s campaigning. “It was a huge win for us,” she says.
The group kept campaigning. They surveyed 800 locals and 200 tourists and found almost all were opposed to pokies in the town. Just days after the survey was released, the government announced it was cutting the cap on poker machines from 1,699 to 1,659, which meant only 20 more were available.
Iris subsequently withdrew its application for 40 poker machines at two venues, the Mercure and Uncles, which did not have pre-existing machines. Iris Capital was contacted for comment but did not respond.
Asta Hill, another lawyer involved in the campaign, says the fight was “exhilarating” and “empowering”.
“From a grassroots campaigning perspective, we faced a perfect adversary,” Hill says.
Iris was, however, granted 20 more machines at the Todd Tavern and Gap View Hotel. The community campaigners are fighting this in the courts with the assistance of law firm Maurice Blackburn.
‘It was a done deal’
At around the time the NT government announced the moratorium on new poker machines, residents in Bangalow, a small hinterland town near Byron Bay, were concerned their struggling local bowling club was about to be swallowed by a Sydney-based pokies giant, Norths. So they phoned a friend.
In 2007, George Catsi ripped the poker machines out of his Petersham Bowling Club in Sydney’s inner west and ever since he’s fielded calls for help from community leaders and clubs wanting to do the same.
“We felt very uncomfortable at the time and we just literally turned them off at the wall,” Catsi says. “We said, ‘we are not going to do this any more, we’re going to build a business’.”
Catsi agreed to speak to those in Bangalow about how their bowling club could get out of financial strife – without more pokies and without Norths. Hundreds packed into a small room, where he was interviewed by the former ABC presenter Kerry O’Brien.
“There was a real split in the community and a huge tussle. Some wanted autonomy and they were very concerned about the poker machine aspect of the merger,” Catsi says. “I suggested they don’t merge. They said they had to patch their roof, I said: ‘just work it off, sell some of your existing machines’.”
One of the community campaign’s leaders was Prof Linda Hancock, a gambling expert with decades of experience at Deakin University. Hancock, who lived nearby at Brunswick Heads, felt emboldened by Catsi’s speech.
“Nobody wanted a gambling-intensive venue. Although the memorandum of understanding said they would only increase the number of machines … to 12, that would only be for a period of time,” Hancock says.
Campaign badges were made. Media appearances secured. Some support was received from local politicians. But ultimately, the campaign failed. The merger with Norths was approved, 289 votes to 192.
“By the time the no campaign was able to marshal itself together, it was a done deal,” Hancock says.
She describes it as a “well-practised takeover method”.
The Bowlo’s general manager, Chris Masters, says most members were “primarily concerned with securing their future above all else”. He says poker machines would increase from four to 10 within a year, before being capped at 15.
“A ‘well-practised takeover method’ is not an accurate depiction of the collaborative, transparent, process undertaken,” Masters says.
“The amalgamation has not only seen this fantastic community hub protected for the benefit of the local neighbourhood, but it has also had tens of thousands of dollars invested in it over the first five months operating as a Norths Collective venue.”
But one local resident, Holly Burns, who was part of the campaign to ‘Keep the Bowlo Local’, worries about more pokies coming to the region.
“Addiction is a big deal in this area,” Burns said. “If it’s not ice, it’s pokies. This area is paradise, but it’s also addict paradise.”
‘David and Goliath’ battle
In the south-eastern Melbourne suburb of Caulfield, another campaign is trying to block a new venue with poker machines – this time on crown land.
The Melbourne Racing Club, which leases the Caulfield Racecourse Reserve and has a licence for 105 poker machines, wants to create a new entertainment venue roughly 200 metres away.
Jane Karslake, a local resident and former union organiser, is leading a campaign against the venue – which she describes as a David and Goliath battle – and has launched an online petition to be sent to the state planning minister, Sonya Kilkenny.
“As a community, we are saying there are enough gaming venues in our immediate facility and this one will be much more prominent,” Karslake says.
“It’s going to be in close proximity to homes, with a 4am license. It would also be directly opposite one of the state’s premier transport hubs – it’s obviously not in the public interest to have a venue there.”
A spokesperson for the Melbourne Racing Club says it had already engaged in extensive community consultation over a three-year period. They say the new development would unlock the nearby park for “greater community use”.
Karslake has the support of longtime campaigner Carol Bennett from the Alliance for Gambling Reform, who says removing poker machines is “one of the best ways to ensure communities flourish and focus on what they really want and need”.
“We are seeing a groundswell of local communities taking back control from gambling interests and replacing it with live music, good food and recreation,” Bennett says.
“That can only be a good thing for all of us.”